Top American diplomat in Cuba in line to head new embassy
BY ANITA SNOW
From his office high above Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis has a sweeping
view of the cerulean Florida Straits and the blood-red letters declaring
Cuba’s defiance of the United States.
“Homeland or Death!” reads the sign erected in front of the U.S.
Interests Section built 15 years ago, when DeLaurentis was a more junior
officer working to defuse a standoff over the fate of child rafter Elian
Now, on this third assignment in communist Cuba, DeLaurentis is the top
U.S. diplomat on the island, working to bring an end to more than a
half-century of hostilities between the two countries. Known for his
low-key style and public discretion, the 61-year-old diplomat also is on
a short list for U.S. ambassador to Cuba, if there is to be one.
On Wednesday, DeLaurentis hand-delivered a letter from the White House
to the Cuban Foreign Ministry about restoring embassies in the
countries’ respective capitals. Their respective diplomatic missions
called interests sections will be converted into embassies as soon as
July 20, although the U.S. State Department says it does not yet have a
date for a formal ceremony.
Cuba said the ceremony to convert the respective interests sections into
embassies will be held July 20.
Several Republicans in Congress have vowed to block the appointment of
an ambassador to Havana and hold up funding for the embassy.
“There aren’t many diplomats who could represent the United States in
Havana during this sensitive, but promising chapter,” former Cuban
diplomat Carlos Alzugaray said. “Jeff is one of them.”
DeLaurentis was a consular officer in Cuba in 1991-93, when the island
was plunged into economic crisis with the Soviet Union’s collapse. As
head of the U.S. Interests Section’s economic and political section in
1999-2002, DeLaurentis was a key negotiator in the fight over Elian
Vicki Huddleston, who headed the mission then, said DeLaurentis’ quiet
diplomacy helped dial down tensions when Cuban officials threatened a
mass migration of rafters if the young castaway wasn’t returned to his
homeland. President Bill Clinton’s administration ultimately backed the
parental rights of Elian’s father in Cuba and returned the boy to the
DeLaurentis also was “instrumental” in discussions with Cuban officials
over the decision by U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration to
use the Guantanamo naval base in eastern Cuba to house prisoners held on
terrorism charges following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“He always sort of quietly pushed the envelope with Cuban officials, but
they always gave him a lot of credit,” Huddleston said. “He was always
spot-on in interpreting Cuban motives and actions.”
Huddleston recalled that she and DeLaurentis attended Mass at a local
Roman Catholic church and he worked to get computers to the parish at a
time that such technology in the hands of a non-governmental entity was
Huddleston was succeeded as head of mission by James Cason, who enraged
Fidel Castro by meeting with government opponents at a dissident’s home
in 2003. Seventy-five dissidents were arrested several weeks later.
Negotiations to free USAID contractor Alan Gross were under way for
months before DeLaurentis returned to Havana as head of mission last
August. Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro of Cuba announced a deal
on Dec. 17 to free Gross and three Cuban prisoners in the United States
and to work toward renewing diplomatic relations.
The tall, lanky DeLaurentis is a distinctive figure around Havana,
dressed in a long-sleeve shirt and tie for meetings with other foreign
diplomats, business people and Cubans he has known for years.
As in his earlier stints, DeLaurentis “gets out of the building and
talks with people,” said Philip Peters, a Cuba analyst who travels to
the island regularly. “He knows the country very, very well.”
True to form, DeLaurentis declined to speak on the record because of the
U.S.-Cuba negotiations. He has spoken very little with major media since
Dec. 17. He told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that a new U.S. exception to the
trade embargo would allow exchange of Internet technology that could be
a “game changer down the line” by connecting Cuba to the world and
“lighting up the island.”
DeLaurentis is a graduate of the Georgetown University’s School of
Foreign Service and Columbia University’s Graduate School of
International and Public Affairs. He was a senior official at the
Council on Foreign Relations in New York before joining the U.S. State
Department and has worked at the U.S. mission to the United Nations in
Geneva, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, and in Washington,
including as deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere
Most recently, DeLaurentis was a deputy to U.S. Ambassador Samantha
Power at the United Nations, where a former colleague said he was known
as “the person who turned on the lights in the morning and was the last
to leave at night.”
DeLaurentis’ online presence is minimal, mostly written texts of
addresses to the U.N. Security Council. In one rare speech carried by
YouTube, the graying diplomat with dark-rimmed glasses told students at
a 2013 International Model U.N. Conference that international diplomacy
“can be frustrating, even maddening.”
He didn’t elaborate on the challenges of being a diplomat in Cuba, which
has not had formal diplomatic relations with the U.S. since 1961.
“He’s trying to rebuild a relationship that has been in shambles for 55
years,” Dutch Ambassador Norbert Braakhuis said.
The United States needs “someone who is very cautious – but also very
knowledgeable and with well above average insights,” Braakhuis said.
DeLaurentis, he added, is “clearly the right person at the right time